In previous years we’ve looked to September as a time of optimism and a moment to reset after the highs of summer. This year, the backdrop of recession and returning to work and school after many months of life at home means advertisers need to think a little differently about what this period holds for their audience.

2020 has seen uncertainty reflected in a delayed interest in “back to school shopping” with Google search trends rising two weeks later (from the 3rd week in July) vs the last 5 years (typically beginning to rise from early July)1. As the government’s campaign for a safe return to schools gets underway, here are three ways we’ve seen advertisers shift their approaches to Back To School marketing in line with the new reality:

Continued growth of online: Back to school shopping is no exception to the significant growth in online shopping. According to research over 90% of parents with kids and university students will shop online for back-to-school2. For retailers in particular we have seen an increase in “buy online” messaging, with Sainsbury’s and Tesco both reflecting the wider shift to online grocery shopping within their creative copy.

A focus on hygiene: Sanitiser, masks and cleaning supplies have made their way to the top of the list of essentials2, displacing historical focus on items like technology. As a result, new brands are finding ways to be a part of the back to school moment. Dettol’s recent campaign focuses on laundry detergent as parent’s get ready for the school uniform laundry routine while Boots have recently launched a radio campaign focusing on children’s vitamins.

The importance of empathy in uncertain times: Back to School represents a significant milestone for everyone in the context of lockdown easing, and with this reassurance is key. Research in the US has show that advertisers treading the line between positivity and empathy are seeing their ads resonate stronger with consumers3. This sits at the heart of Very’s back to school campaign, which focuses on “back to school joy for everyone” – acknowledging the positives in a distinctive way that helps cut through an increasingly competitive moment4.

For many marketers, seasonal milestones like Back to School involve tried and tested methods and well-established consumer behaviours. But as we move through these milestones in the context of the pandemic, challenging what we know about consumers and their behaviours is key to maximising opportunities new and old.